On the Sunday of the Prodigal Son
“This, My Son, Was Dead, And Is Alive Again”
Luke 15:11-32, The Prodigal Son
Sermon Preached by Fr. Peter DeFonce on Sunday, February 27, 2005
Much has been said over the past two thousand years about the parable given us by the Lord in this morning’s Gospel reading. We often look at the three main characters and try to determine which one of them we most closely resemble, spiritually, vacillating between the unjust but penitent younger son, and the externally righteous but morally bankrupt older son. Perhaps some of us even see ourselves as the loving father who gives freely of all that he has, knowing exactly what will become of those who receive our gifts, and preparing ourselves to lovingly accept back into our hearts and homes the grateful sinners who realize what they have done and come crawling back to us on their hands and knees, begging our forgiveness. What more could possibly be said about a passage which has such a crystal clear purpose and meaning, which we hear about on this same Sunday every single year, as we prepare once again to start our Lenten voyage towards the Pascha of the Lord?
Let us turn for a moment away from the passage before us, and think about the world and the contemporary society in which we live. Our lives are built around hurrying mindlessly from one place to another, neither considering the place where we are, nor thoughtfully preparing for the place to which we are going. We simply run ourselves ragged, until our feet hurt, having no recourse but to come home at the end of the day and collapse on the couch in our living room, exhausted. There is a relentless march to the passage of time, with hours and days screaming by unnoticed--weeks, months, and even years piling up one after another… does it not always seem the same? Are not our lives nauseatingly filled with sameness, which could drive us mad if we ever stopped to think about it? First we lament the beginning of the workweek, then we struggle through the Tuesdays and Wednesdays, receive our paychecks, and start asking our friends and coworkers how they will spend their weekends… just like we did the previous week. Following our tiring attempts to have the best and most relaxing weekends in history, we return to the mill on Monday morning and ask those same friends and coworkers how they spent their weekends… just like we did the previous week. What is the point of all this busyness and frustration?
Let me share with you an experience I had several years ago, while I was at Seminary. One evening, I went out for a walk after dinner; it was during Great Lent, and I had just finished my school day as we all did: Lenten daily Vespers, followed by the singing of the meal blessings in our subdued Lenten tones, and a quiet fasting dinner, accompanied by someone reading a passage from spiritual literature, as we ate. The sunlight had mostly faded, leaving only twilight to illumine the houses in the adjacent neighborhood, coupled with occasional stretches of streetlights. As I walked, I tried to get a sense of how other people were spending their evenings. Many people sat in large comfortable living rooms watching their televisions, enjoying news reports of the latest barrage of deaths, wars, famines, gang violence, and celebrity sightings. Many people ate the same meals they were accustomed to eating every other day of every other week, no doubt uninspired by our gallant attempts to keep the strictures of the Lenten fast across the street. Soon, the peaceful residents of our beautiful neighborhood would be falling asleep in their armchairs, in front of the Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, or the Tonight Show if they could stay awake along enough. They might even have at one point heard the bells of the Seminary chapel somewhere around 9:30 p.m., calling the students to assemble for the Compline prayer service before retiring to their rooms for bed.
In short, you could easily have just put up a sign in that neighborhood saying: “Welcome to the Far Country.” We are living in a society of unparalleled wealth, luxury and entertainment, which only serve to mask the “great famine” engulfing all the “citizens of that country.” Most of us have sold our souls to one or another slave driver, carelessly throwing away every one of our best intentions and squandering all our spiritual, physical, and emotional resources: some are devoured by the food that they eat, some burn the midnight oil in cubicles in front of computer terminals, some build their lives around the incessant noise of television, some pursue the “riotous living” of alcohol and drug abuse, or sexual indiscretion, and so on. The possibilities are endless. For each one of us here in this spiritual pigpen, there is one primal force constraining us and trying to shoot down all our efforts to “arise and go back to [our] Father;” that single destructive power is: sameness, the dismal comfort of repetition, the warm, soft, and familiar-smelling fragrance of ingrained passions and evil impulses.
In the Lenten season set before us, the Lord in His mercy and loving-kindness has given us numerous paths to break this chain that binds us to our sins and our old ways of living. One such path is fasting, a sometimes lonely road, which involves both abstaining from various foods and eating significantly less at meals. Another path to freedom is the increased opportunity for prayer: Presanctified Liturgies, Akathist services, the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, and the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, with its many prostrations. The third path is almsgiving, whereby we show increased love and devotion to the poor and to all who suffer from the evil in this world, blessing them with our humble gifts of money, time, human contact, a listening ear, food and drink, clothing, shelter, and whatever else the Lord provides us. The first path, by emptying ourselves, brings us face to face with our pride, and the ferocity of our temptations. The second path, by prostrating ourselves, brings us face to face with our inner filth, and the ferocity of those demons that tempt us. The third path, by sacrificing ourselves, brings us face to face with Christ in our neighbor, both in those who love us, and in those who hate us.
Let us arise with the Prodigal and flee from our pigpens! Let us start on the long journey home, confessing in our hearts and on our lips that we “have sinned against Heaven and before the face” of our Father. Let us beg God to receive us not as we deserve, but according to the greatness of His love and the multitude of His mercies. Although we are no longer worthy to be called the sons and daughters of God, let us trust the words of Christ our Savior, the fatted Calf who was slain to be the Food of all who rejoice in the Father’s house, that “there will be more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). When our return trip from the “far country” comes to an end, may we too see our God and Father run to meet us, throw His arms around our shoulders, and kiss us, calling out to His holy angels: “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet, and bring the fatted calf and kill it… for this, my son, was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found!” Amen